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3 in GOP predict close race, runoff

by Michael R. Wickline | October 6, 2013 at 5:45 a.m.

A businessman, a healthcare executive and a retired AT&T manager are jousting in Tuesday’s special primary election for the Republican nomination for a vacant state Senate seat in Craighead County.

The businessman - Chad Niell, chief executive officer for Tiger Correctional Services - said he expects to qualify for the Nov. 12 runoff election, along with retired AT&T manager John Cooper.

The health-care executive is Dan Sullivan, CEO of Ascent Children’s Health Services.

The Senate seat became vacant with the Aug. 20 resignation of Jonesboro Democrat Paul Bookout.

All three predict there will be a runoff.

Craighead County’s most prominent Republican - U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford - said through a spokesman that he’s not endorsing a candidate.

If no candidate gets a majority of the votes in Tuesday’s primary, the two top vote-getters will meet in the runoff election on Nov. 12.

The winner will face the Democratic nominee in the Jan. 14 special election.

Niell, who is making his first bid for elected office, said Cooper benefits from a previous run for the Legislature. Niell said he’s always kept a low profile.

Cooper lost to state Rep. Butch Wilkins, D-Bono, in November. Last week, Niell reported spending the most of the seven candidates seeking the Senate seat. He lent his campaign $115,000.

Cooper said he’s expecting that he’ll be one of the two top finishers and will advance to a runoff election. He didn’t predict who else would advance.

Sullivan, another first time candidate, said he’ll be a top vote-getter, but he’s not prepared to predict whether Cooper or Niell will join him in the runoff after “a very fluid” primary election.

Niell’s Tiger Correctional Services was ordered to pay a $21,000 civil penalty to the state Securities Department in a consent order signed in September by Niell and Securities Commissioner Heath Abshure.

Among other functions, the firm transmits money from family members to inmates in Arkansas jails, according to Niell. It unintentionally engaged in the business without a license from 2010 to 2013, and contacted the department to try to comply once the company became aware of the violation, the consent order said.

“We brought that to the state’s attention [and] they continued to allow us to operate the office,” said Niell.

But Cooper said a $21,000 fine from a state agency “is not your parking ticket.

“That is something voters could and should consider,” he said.

Sullivan declined to comment in an interview about the $21,000 fine.

Sullivan said he’s the best Republican candidate in the field because he’s “a strong conservative” with experience working with both Democrats and Republicans in state government. He said he also has strong business experience and has been active as an elder in the Southwest Church of Christ.

Cooper said he’s the “conservative candidate” in the field and has been active in conservative causes longer than either Niell or Sullivan.

He said he was the first of the three Republican candidates to signal his opposition to legislation that authorizes the use of federal Medicaid dollars to purchase private health insurance through health-care exchanges for an estimated 250,000 uninsured Arkansans.

The three candidates indicated on a candidate questionnaire for the conservative group Family Council that they are against the “private option” legislation.

“I am not in favor of funding the private option,” Cooper said. “It is going to be an economic disaster, and we can’t afford it.

“I don’t believe it is going to amount to kicking people off [health-insurance coverage]. If that is the case, the alternative is worse. I chose the less painful of the two directions,” he explained.

Niell said he’s “totally against the private option” because it appears like it will stifle competition and lead to a rationing of health care.

“I will not vote to fund it. You can bank on it,” Niell said. “I don’t want to kick anybody off [health insurance] if they need it. … If the state would reduce regulations on health insurance, people could afford health insurance. Regulations and red tape caused this problem. That’s what I am against.”

Sullivan said Friday night that he would call the Family Council this week to clarify that he considers the private option law a poor law, but he is not against following it as a law.

He said he would have to see “some viable options before I would be ready to kill the [private option] program or public funding for the program.

“I haven’t heard what those options are. There may be some,” he said.

Sullivan is president of the Arkansas Behavioral Health Providers Association. He said he would step down from the post if he’s elected to the Legislature.

Niell said he’s the best GOP candidate in the field because he can appeal to both sides of the aisle and he won’t “bend my conservative values.”

Cooper and Niell signed the Washington, D.C.-based Americans for Tax Reform’s pledge not to vote for tax increases in the Legislature. Sullivan said he, likewise, opposes increasing taxes and fees because they are a deterrent to business.

Cooper and Niell said they want to cut state taxes and state regulations.

Cooper said he favors legislation limiting the annual growth in state government spending to the growth in the state’s gross domestic product. Sullivan said he wants to expand school-choice options, so parents can pick the best place for their children.

State Senate District 21 REPUBLICANS Dan Sullivan Age: 63 Birthplace: Independence, Mo.

Residence: Jonesboro Education: Parkway High School, Chesterfield, Mo.; Arkansas State University, bachelor’s degree;

Northeast Missouri State University, which is now Truman State University, in Kirksville, Mo., master’s degree.

Occupation: CEO Ascent Children’s Health Services.

Family: Wife, Maria; two children.

Chad Niell Age: 52 Birthplace: Jonesboro Residence: Jonesboro Education: Nettleton High School; Arkansas State University, bachelor’s degree.

Occupation: CEO of Tiger Correctional Services.

Family: Wife, Pamella; three children.

John Cooper

Age: 66

Birthplace: Heber Springs

Residence: Jonesboro

Education: Heber Springs High School.

Occupation: Retired AT&T employee.

Family: Wife, Betty Sue; two children.

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Arkansas, Pages 15 on 10/06/2013

Print Headline: 3 in GOP predict close race, runoff

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